When he returned to his office after the team’s first practice of the week, Shorter University head football coach Phil Jones felt that the questions he had about the Hawks’ mindset were answered.
They were questions and concerns that coaches always have coming off a loss, especially when it’s a defeat that all but dashes a team’s championship hopes.
Yet in the wake of a mistake-ridden 21-14 Mid-South Conference West Division setback to the University of the Cumberlands last Saturday, Jones saw his players return to work with a determined look heading into this week’s non-conference home clash at Barron Stadium against No. 22-ranked NAIA independent power Webber International.
“A team’s attitude is what you have to worry about after coming off a game like that,” Jones said of the loss to Cumberlands in which the Hawks fumbled four times and were all but eliminated from the title picture. “I believe our players want to finish strong. They understand we’ve had four winning seasons in a row and want to continue that. We’ll always reach for a championship, but we’ll always reach for the highest goals we can achieve.
“Our goal now is to have a winning season,” Jones added. “In the past when we’ve had those winning seasons, it came in similar situations and the players always played all the way through it. They have a lot of pride in that.”
While Shorter’s new mission is securing a fifth straight winning season for its sixth-year program, the Hawks (4-4) not only want to close out the season with positive results, but also set the stage for the future.
Jones is quick to point out that this year’s team is one of the youngest since the program’s inception with just six seniors in the starting lineup, two on defense and four on the offensive side of the ball.
“We have good, young talent,” said Jones. “If Tuesday’s practice was a judgment of where they’re at, then we’re on the right track.”
Last week against Cumberlands, a game in which Shorter led nearly every statistical category, the Hawks were off track with four fumbles and two missed field goals proving too much.
A second-quarter fumble on a broken option play resulted in the Patriots scooping up the ball for a touchdown and two more fumbles on Hawks’ last three possessions sealed the outcome – the last one coming on their final drive of the game.
“It’s a real big disappointment to know we may be out of the championship picture,” Jones said. “It would be easier to take if you felt like you got whipped, but we didn’t. There are three things that change a game. First are penalties, which weren’t an issue. The second is big plays and although they completed a couple of long passes that set up two touchdowns, it was something we could overcome. The third is turnovers and that was critical to us most of all.
“We stress hanging on to the ball all the time and it really hasn’t been a big issue except for two games. The irony of it is those two games came against the two Cumberlands. Both scores were about the same and both involved turnovers we made.”
Avoiding putting the ball on the ground is a must against Webber (5-3), Jones stresses, a team that was upset last weekend in a 35-23 loss to Huntingdon.
Webber’s defensive unit is led by defensive back Deivon Tate’s NAIA-best seven interceptions, and its offense features a wide-open attack directed by sophomore quarterback Torrance Moise, who is a dual threat running and throwing the ball.
Averaging 174 yards in total offense per game, Moise has thrown for 983 touchdowns and five touchdowns while rushing for another 416 yards and five TDs.
“He’s the key to their offense,” Jones said of Moise. “He’s very, very elusive.”
The game is the third meeting between the two teams. Webber was Shorter’s inaugural season-opener in 2005 and claimed a 16-9 decision; a game was later forfeited to the Hawks. The last time the programs played came in 2006, when the Warriors emerged with a 13-6 squeaker.
“They’re talented, they have size and they have speed,” Jones said of Webber, which has Mid-South East leader Georgetown among its 2010 victims. “I’m anticipating we’ll face a very, very tough football team.”
The Hawks understand that eliminating every mistake is a must and, save for the recent rash of offensive turnovers, have played well on both sides of the ball.
Shorter is still one of the nation’s top rushing teams, checking in at No. 4 by averaging 266 yards a game, while its defense has turned in some of its best outings in the last four games. After yielding 138 points in the first four games of the season, the Hawks’ defenders have allowed just 77 points in the past four contests.
“All of the coaches are determined to help the team be ready to play,” Jones said, noting that the buzz phrase the staff has used all year – “Be Their Coach” – is as important as ever.
“The coaches and the seniors need to be the catalyst,” he said, “to make sure we can finish the very best we can.”